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Batman Begins

Fans know when they've been burned, and the Batman franchise surely did burn us, even if we pretend that last year's Catwoman flare-up did not happen. But a new dynamic duo have resurrected what once was lost in neon and nipples. They do not wear capes. They do not wear cowls. They do, however, have an understanding of Batman, a desire to tell a story about him, and the talent to do so well. Right upfront, we say thank you, Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer.

In Batman Begins, these two have created something special. It's not just the Batman movie fans didn't know they absolutely needed; once upon a time, we were pretty pleased by Tim Burton's vision. Though the past few years have brought us some very good movie adaptations of comic book material, Nolan and Goyer have raised the bar higher than we thought possible. Sin City? Hellboy? You have to go into those with a state of mind. The upcoming Fantastic Four could be a great movie, and it would still suck in comparison.

Batman Begins doesn't just please the fans; it takes the extra step of being so good that the average audience member just might figure out what we've been raving about all this time.

As screenwriter, Goyer redeems himself for Blade: Trinity. Though Nolan collaborated on the screenplay, it's clear that the utter love and respect for the character comes from the Fanboy turned comic book writer. This is the first Batman movie that has real depth; since Batman aims to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, it only makes sense to explore his own fears.

For years, The Scarecrow had been bandied about as the villain for the proposed "fifth" Batman film vaguely following Burton's design. Goyer kept the character as a foil, but made it absolutely necessary to the story he had to tell. Though Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) leaves a strong impression, he never overshadows Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). Neither does the film's other villain, R'as al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Again, integral to the plot, but this movie is about Batman, not selling action figures. (Though, yes, they will be sold.)

Director Nolan jumps around a bit, revealing the bits and pieces of Batman's origin in ways that no one has explored on film before. In doing so, the mythos gets restored to the tragedy that it should be.

By giving us a few moments of young Bruce's pretty good home life, Nolan makes us feel the loss of Thomas (Linus Roache) and Martha Wayne (Sara Stewart). Goyer also structures it so that we understand, perhaps for the first time, the loss that Gotham City feels as a result of their deaths. Criminals may fear the shadow of the bat, but Bruce Wayne agonizes in the shadow of his father.

That cross-cuts with the aimless young man he became, consumed with grief and rage at the man who killed his parents. When mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) denies him revenge, Wayne disappears into an unfocused weapon. That is, until made an offer by the mysterious Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) to join The League of Shadows.

Whether or not you consider Wayne's ultimate choice to be insane gets left to you. Goyer and Nolan make a good case for it to be understandable for him to become Batman. Without being jokey about it, the movie also shows us the different opinions from Gothamites' points of view.

Certainly, the criminals don't wonder if he's sane or not. They just wet themselves when they know he's around. Whenever the film shifts to the underworld's perspective, Nolan treats Batman Begins like a horror film. Something lurks in the shadows, snatching thugs into the air, perhaps to be eaten. If he talks to them, it's really the scream of a hideous beast. The fight scenes are a blur, though well-directed, because Batman is just that good.

Yet Nolan also shows that Batman does this because he cares. Without slipping into treacle, the director pauses to show the Dark Knight not exactly bonding, but at least acknowledging that he provides inspiration to a child. In a neat bit of turnabout that doesn't feel forced, it's also clear that he does feel friendship and loyalty toward Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) before the last good cop in Gotham knows it himself. Gordon was on the scene at the Waynes' murder, even then a decent man refusing to be swallowed by corruption.

For a loner, Batman sure does need people, but again, the script leaves that up to viewers to interpret. No ideas get heavy-handed treatment, unlike earlier films that made sure you knew what Burton thought about his caped crusader. Instead, we get fine actors showing real emotion and connection.

Like Michael Gough, Michael Caine understands the real love that Alfred Pennyworth has for his young charge, but this film actually gives Caine something to work with. It's not just a tie to Bruce, but to Thomas that keeps Alfred around. The same goes for Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a long-time employee of Wayne Enterprises who remembers what Thomas Wayne stood for and helps outfit Batman without asking questions.

"That way," Freeman dryly comments, "if anyone asks, I don't have to lie." Sure, he figures it all out, but we only know by the veteran actor's twinkle.

At the center of it all stands Bale, providing a star-making turn. Okay, his fans will argue he always has been, but after Batman, everyone will know who he is. They should. He has long been a great actor, and he sacrifices none of that to play a man dressed up as a bat.

Bale pulls off the tricky bit of playing feckless out of costume while still making it clearly an act. In one scene, he joins some wealthy friends in dissecting Batman's motivations, and as he listens, his mask drops for just an instant when he registers that some think he may be insane.

Once the cowl comes on, Bale plays a lot more range than any of his predecessors. Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer were almost all business; George Clooney couldn't stop bobbing his head. Bale's Batman has rage, a desire to strike terror into the hearts of criminals. But sometimes, he allows that it might be kind of cool and fun to be the Bat. Certainly, it's cooler for him than being Bruce.

You also almost believe he actually has a passion for the obligatory love interest in this film, Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). She plays tough and holds her own in the powerhouse cast, but fans also know that she must disappear in favor of Harvey Dent in the future.

And there should be a future. Nolan and Goyer have been playing it coy, but they have taken their title to heart. In this film, Batman begins, and only begins. He has a world of hurt waiting for him, something Jim Gordon points out to him. The creators have also set this up so we believe it does not exist in a vacuum.

As fine as Sam Raimi's two Spider-Man films have been, they give the strange sensation of everything stopping dead for three years in those characters lives between films. With Batman Begins, we won't get to see everything, but we know the madmen are plentiful. Heck, Goyer even threw in minor (but creepy) villain Mr. Szasz, just so audiences would understand how deep the rogues' gallery already is.

We can hardly wait.

Rating: yep. That's 5 planets and a comet. It's that good.

Derek McCaw

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